Texas Tech football: 3 things to know about Miss State

Oct 30, 2021; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Mike Leach walks off the field at the end of the second quarter against the Kentucky Wildcats at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 30, 2021; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Mike Leach walks off the field at the end of the second quarter against the Kentucky Wildcats at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports /

Tuesday, COVID-19 willing, the Texas Tech football team will return to postseason play for the first time since 2017 when the Red Raiders lost the Birmingham Bowl to South Florida.  And while this year’s Auto Zone Liberty Bowl means little in terms of prestige or titles, the fact that Tech is set to face former Red Raider head coach, Mike Leach, gives this matchup some real juice.

These two programs have met seven times with the Bulldogs holding a 4-2-1 advantage.  However, all of those meetings came between 1953 and 1970 so it is hard to draw an conclusions from this series’ history.

On the year, Mississippi State has a record of 7-5 with a 4-4 mark in SEC play which was good for fourth in the rugged, 7-team SEC West. It was a step forward for Leach after his team struggled to a 4-7 record in 2020, the Pirate’s first year on the job in Starkville.

But even though many Tech fans like to follow Leach’s career from a distance, most don’t know much about the Bulldogs as they are a program that rarely comes into Texas Tech’s orbit.  So let’s take a closer look at the Bulldogs as we prepare for Tuesday’s Auto Zone Liberty Bowl.

They have been up-and-down this year

As is the case for most 7-5 teams, Mississippi State has been a bit like Jekyll and Hyde this season.  That makes it tough to figure out just how good they are.

On the positive side, one has to look at Mississippi State’s wins over No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 12 Kentucky, and No. 17 Auburn (with the A&M and Auburn games coming on the road) and be rather impressed.  In those three games, the Bulldogs proved that they can beat top-level competition.

But on the other hand, Leach’s squad had some head-scratching moments as well.  That included a 31-29 loss to Memphis that saw the Dogs surrender 17 points in the final quarter.

Of course, Mississippi State fans have to still be salty about a late-game punt that Mississippi State appeared to have downed only to have Memphis pick it up and return in 94 yards for the TD despite the back judge signaling for the clock to be stopped.  That play proved to be a huge turning point in what was a wild and controversial game.

The Bulldogs also dropped a game to a mediocre LSU team (one that would finish the year 6-6), 28-25, at home.  That day, MSU had two turnovers inside the LSU 30-yard-line to squander a golden opportunity to defeat their hated conference foe.

So it is fair to question which Mississippi State team will show up in Memphis.  Hopefully, it will be the one that played in Memphis earlier this year and not the one that has taken down several quality SEC opponents.

They have a stout defense

Fairly or unfairly, Mike Leach has earned a reputation for not emphasizing defense enough throughout his career.  However, this year’s Mississippi State team has one of the better statistical defenses in the nation.

Overall, MSU ranks No. 21 in the NCAA in total defense by giving up just 330.8 yards per game.  That was good for 4th-best in the SEC.

Against the run is where the Bulldogs shine.  Surrendering only 100.8 yards per game on the ground, Mississippi State is 10th in the nation and third in their conference.

But against the pass, the Dogs are not much worse.  Giving up 230.1 yards per game, they rank 68th nationally (but only 9th in the SEC).  Fortunately for the Red Raiders though, MSU will be without their top corner, Martin Emerson, who has opted out of this bowl game.

Still, Tech will have to deal with a pair of disruptive pass-rushing linebackers in this game.  6-foot-2, 265-pound Tyrus Wheat has amassed an impressive seven sacks this year while also being credited with 45 tackles.  Meanwhile, 6-foot-2, 240-pound Nathaniel Watson has four sacks among his 77 tackles.

So while any Mike Leach team is going to be known for its offensive prowess, don’t sleep on the MSU defense because it is a group that can play some solid football.  And that’s not great news for a Texas Tech offense that struggled at the end of the regular season against solid defenses in Oklahoma State and Baylor.

QB Will Rogers is as accurate as they come

Surprise, surprise.  Mike Leach has another star QB on his hands.  That’s nothing new to Texas Tech football fans.

But what folks around Texas might not know is how good MSU signal-caller Will Rogers is.  In fact, he’s putting up numbers that rival those of former Leach protegees Gardner Minshew and Graham Harrell.

Overall, he’s completed a ridiculous 75.1% of his passes.  But he’s not just a dink-and-dunk passer because he’s averaging a respectable 7.1 yards per attempt.   By comparison, in his best season as a Red Raider, Harrell completed 71.8% of his passes while averaging 8.0 yards per attempt.

Already this year, Rogers has had four games of over 400 yards passing and four more of at least 370.  And what’s more, he doesn’t turn the ball over very often as he has only eight interceptions on the year while tossing 35 TDs.

So don’t blame Rogers and Leach if they are licking their chops to face Tech’s pass defense.  The Red Raiders are just 118th of 130 teams in pass yards allowed as they give up 266.4 per game.  Thus, Tech is going to have to find something new in their defensive approach if they hope to slow down one of the SEC’s most dangerous passers.